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Sandhill spectacle

Platte River crane migration attracts birdwatchers to Nebraska

Like a visit to Oshkosh is for aviators, the sandhill crane migration is a bucket-list item for birdwatchers. Make this your year to experience an unforgettable display of nature’s exuberance.

  • On an evening in March, sandhill cranes prepare to roost along the “Big Bend” portion of the Platte River in central Nebraska. Large sandbars in the middle of the meandering river provide safe refuge from predators. The birds stay for about a month, fattening up on an estimated 1,600 tons of “waste corn” left from the previous harvest in fields adjacent to the river, before continuing the long journey toward their breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. Photo by Brad Mellema.
  • You can land either at Kearney Regional or at Central Nebraska Regional (closer to Grand Island), depending on your itinerary. Both airports have two runways but similar triangular configurations when viewed from the air, with the terminal on the west side of the airport, and both airports lie northeast of their respective cities. So be sure you’re approaching the correct airport. Both airports have full-serve 100LL and Jet-A, instrument approaches, rental cars, and airline service, but Kearney does not have a control tower. Photo by Brad Mellema.
  • Sandhill cranes have one of the longest fossil records of any living bird, and the species appears not to have changed much over the last 10 million years. For millennia, sandhills have nested in the far north where long summer days bring an explosion of life, including emerging amphibians, small fish, and insects—perfect high-protein foods for fast-growing chicks. The Platte River formed as the last Ice Age ended, around 10,000–12,000 years ago, and it’s likely the cranes have been stopping there ever since, to refuel before continuing their migration. Photo courtesy Grand Island CVB.
  • The cranes socialize and dance, leaping high into the air with their mates and creating or renewing the lifelong bonds that will produce the next generation of their kind. Photo by Don Brockmeier.
  • Many “craniacs” watch the cranes at dawn and dusk from special blinds set up next to the Platte River. March weather can be fickle so bring layers, including rain gear and extra-warm clothes for time spent in the blinds, which can be very cold. Dark clothes are requested, to avoid disturbing the birds. And if you have good binoculars, a spotting scope, and/or a great camera with telephoto lens, you may never find a better opportunity to use them than here. Flashes and other lights, including iPads, are not allowed in the blinds, nor are tripods, and cell phones must be silenced. Photo by Brad Mellema.
  • The cranes return to the river each evening at dusk and use its sandbars for nighttime refuge, dispersing to feed again the next morning. During the day they feed in cornfields or forage for invertebrates and small fish in nearby wetlands or rainwater potholes. Photo courtesy Grand Island CVB.
  • Balsamic mushrooms from Alley Rose, in Kearney. Photo courtesy Alley Rose.
  • At Pioneer Village, you can see an original Pony Express station, a replica sod house, general store, homestead-filing office, antique toys, Currier & Ives lithographs, a steam carousel, one of the world’s largest tractor and farm machinery collections, and over 350 historic cars, including an 1897 steam car. Other items include airplanes, covered wagons, horse-drawn carriages, early bicycles, refrigerators, firearms, radios, and much more. Photo courtesy Pioneer Village.
  • The world’s most numerous cranes, sandhill crane populations have recovered after a 40-mile stretch of the Platte River was restored by the Crane Trust, set up by the National Wildlife Federation. Photo by Brad Mellema.
  • Enjoy a customized vacation at the Crane Trust, near Grand Island. Photo courtesy Grand Island CVB.
  • Crane Trust Platte River excursions range from bicycling to kayaking and more. They also offer special heated blinds for crane viewing. Photo courtesy Grand Island CVB.
  • Renowned architect Edward Durell Stone designed the elegant building of the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer. Stone was also responsible for the Kennedy Center and many other famous buildings. The Stuhr Building was given a multi-million-dollar renovation in 2015. Photo by Brad Mellema.
  • Inside the Stuhr Museum, the Arrow Maker sculpture rests in the center of the Fonner Rotunda. Photo by Brad Mellema.
  • In Grand Island, the newly redesigned Railside Plaza was designed specifically to host concerts. Photo courtesy Grand Island CVB.
  • Time for a specialty cocktail at The Chocolate Bar in Grand Island. Photo by Matt Dixon.

Each spring, one of the world’s greatest avian spectacles takes place on the vast mudflats along the “Big Bend” portion of the Platte River in central Nebraska. Eighty percent of the world’s population of sandhill cranes—some 500,000 birds—arrive from wintering grounds in Mexico, Texas, and New Mexico. Thousands of people also migrate to the Platte River to witness this unique spectacle. They arrive before dawn to witness the great flocks fill the sky at sunrise and stay until after dark to see them return.

Two of the best places to see the cranes are the Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney, Nebraska, and the Crane Trust property, west of Grand Island. You can land either at Kearney Regional or at Central Nebraska Regional, 35 nautical miles to the northeast, near Grand Island, but Kearney is probably most convenient.

Pioneer Village, a living history museum, displays a huge collection of unique Americana. Photo courtesy Pioneer Village.

Many “craniacs” watch the cranes from special blinds set up next to the Platte River. The cranes return to the river each evening at dusk and use its sandbars for nighttime refuge. Their vocalizations sound truly prehistoric, like no other bird I’ve heard. After sunrise, they take to the skies in dramatic fashion and disperse to nearby fields to feed during the day. You’ll find them everywhere in cornfields along the river and along the roads, which makes it easy to stop on the roadside to watch them. Often, you’ll see a pair of cranes “dancing.” They leap into the air with wings flapping, all part of cementing the pair bond.

It’s about a 20-minute drive southeast from Kearney to the Iain Nicholson Audubon Center at the Rowe Sanctuary, on the south bank of the Platte River. During spring migration, Rowe harbors about 70,000 cranes nightly. Led by trained guides, two-hour crane tours are offered March to early April. You’ll walk 1/4 to 1/2 mile to the viewing blinds, strategically placed along the river. They’ll keep you dry, but they’re not heated. "Craniacs" may prefer to overnight inside the blind. If you don’t want to walk or spend time in a cold blind, you can watch the cranes from the comfort of the Audubon Center; reserve tours ahead.

The Railside District in downtown Grand Island includes McKinney's Irish Pub, where you can dig into Bangers and Mash. Photo courtesy Grand Island CVB.

Cranes aren’t the only migrators to have traversed this area. The Platte River was one of the most important corridors for the settlement of the American West. Three miles east of Kearney, the Great Platte River Road Archway stretches 310 feet across Interstate 80. In less than an hour you can take a virtual tour of the area’s role in the westward expansion of America. Kearney is also home to the Museum of Nebraska Art, which showcases over 5,000 works, including paintings by John James Audubon, Albert Bierstadt, Robert Henri, George Catlin, and Thomas Hart Benton, in addition to many contemporary artists. The Classic Car Collection in Kearney displays over 200 cars from the early 1900s to the modern era. Good Kearney eateries include the Tru Café and Alley Rose.

From Kearney, you can drive or hop in your airplane and make the flight 15 nm southeast to Pioneer Village Airport. Runway 16/34 is 3,900 feet long (there’s also a turf Runway 5/23). It’s a one-mile walk to Pioneer Village and its huge collection of unique Americana. (They can usually pick you up if you prefer; call the airport or village before departure, 308-832-2000.) The privately owned museum includes 28 buildings on 20 acres and displays more than 50,000 objects. They even have motel rooms.

The Crane Trust, about 40 minutes east of Kearney and 20 minutes west of Grand Island, provides many ways to experience the natural beauty of the Platte River and its wildlife, including a herd of more than 60 bison. They offer seasonal sandhill crane programs similar to those at the Rowe Sanctuary. Throughout the year, the Crane Trust offers three-day VIP photographic excursions, guided prairie hikes, kayaking, and fat-tire bike tours. Don’t miss the annual “Wings Over the Platte” juried art competition and exhibit held each March at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island. The museum preserves and portrays the era of Nebraska’s pioneer town builders. In addition to the beautiful modern building, you’ll find actor Henry Fonda’s childhood home, a mill, blacksmith, and Native American exhibits. Shoppers will love downtown Grand Island’s “Antique Avenue” on 3rd Street. Catch a big-screen movie at the restored Grand Theatre, with its 1937 Art Deco interior. Favorites in Grand Island include Sin City Grill and The Chocolate Bar.

Dawn on the Platte River. Soon the cranes will depart en masse to nearby fields to feed and display. Photo by Robert Payne.

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Crista Worthy
Crista V. Worthy
Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: U.S. Travel

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